Isolation Blues: thoughts on making music

Music is like love. No, seriously; it really is! Nothing is more intimate than the act of making music together. I’ve always felt that way, and my best musical moments have been full of the same joy and the same layers of unspoken communication and mutual understanding. (This also explains why it’s not musically satisfying to work with colleagues with whom we don’t have a good chemistry.)

As I say, I’ve always felt this way, but a recent experience during the current lockdown has brought this home in a powerful and vivid way. Clare Wilkinson and I just yesterday finished a video of a lute song, for which she recorded the voice part from her home in Belgium, and I recorded the lute part here in North Yorkshire ( It’s a song about “solitariness”, so it seemed appropriate. I also approached John Potter about possibly recording a lockdown lute song with me under similar conditions (except that he’s only 50 miles away from me, not that it currently makes the slightest difference). John’s response was that he simply couldn’t do it. This prompted him to write a blog post ( ) in which he explains that making music for him is entirely about being in the same space with other musicians, and that without this togetherness, it’s simply not music for him. I sympathise. I think he too is talking about the love thing.

I wanted to explain the process of recording the Dowland song with Clare (the first of a planned series), and why it was fascinating and instructive, in the light of these thoughts about music, love, and the lack of actual togetherness in the music-making process. And before I go any further: no, it was not as good as the real thing, but still worth doing in my view, not least because I learned something from it.

First of all, we are obviously not performing in the same place in this video. But we’re not performing at the same time either. (Lots of people have asked me.) The lute part was recorded first, and Clare is (very skillfully) accommodating her singing of the voice part to fit well with the pre-recorded lute part. Why does it work well and sound almost like the real thing? Because we did a lot of preparation. The first aspect of that preparation is that we’ve performed lute songs together for 27 years, and we know each other pretty well by now. The second is that for this performance, specifically, we went through a series of “drafts”. Here’s how we went about it: I did a rough recording of the lute part on my phone at a tempo that I thought would probably suit the words, and sent it to Clare. She did a rough video of herself singing to that first version of the accompaniment, and sent it to me. Listening to it, I could hear immediately that she was having to strait-jacket herself somewhat to sing to that accompaniment. It sounded rather like a wonderful singer forced to sing with a rather insensitive accompanist. This is frustrating, of course, and a bit stinging too, given that I pride myself on being a sensitive accompanist. But in this case, it was not about accompanying Clare directly; rather, it was about accompanying an idea of how I thought Clare might be likely to sing the song. This proved too much for me. My idea wasn’t quite right. But I learned a lot, and went on to make what I thought was a better and more sensitive version of the lute part for her. This got a lot of things more right than in the previous version. But it probably went a little too far the other way, and ended up sounding a bit sluggish when she sent it back with a new voice part overlaid. So I made a third version (this time with visuals), and felt reasonably sure that I now knew more or less what I needed to know to make this work. And it did. Clare, consummate artist that she is, sang the song entirely convincingly to that third draft of the accompaniment (though her voice part went through an additional draft before she was satisfied). The result, I think, sounds pretty convincing, though not quite as convincing as a “real” performance.

But I learned so much. First of all, this convoluted and painstaking process over several days was an approximation, albeit a crude one, of what happens spontaneously when Clare (or John, or Ariel, or Zan) and I are in a room making music together. In just one run-through of the song under normal conditions, we would have come up with something as good as this video, or better. All of the subtle and unspoken layers of communication that take place when artists are together had to be painstakingly substituted with the series of musical drafts that we passed back and forth. It brought home to me again in a vivid way just what goes into the act of making music together under normal conditions. It’s the love thing.

For me, a common theme of this period of isolation has been the rediscovery of so much that I generally took for granted previously. On our daily family walks here on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, I daily appreciate living in such a beautiful place, where there’s space to rattle around and enjoy the marvelous countryside and the beautiful unfolding of spring. In my daily online lute teaching and in conversations (via various chat modes) with friends, again and again I appreciate the many wonderful people I came into contact with regularly before the lockdown, and with whom I hope to come into contact again when this is over. I also appreciate the technology which allows communication of a sort to continue in the meantime. But most of all, I’ve gained a renewed appreciation of the act of music, and of my dear musical friends and colleagues, with whom I have the great privilege of sharing the love thing.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. You seem to be talking indirectly of the distinction between the presence of the Other and the distance or absence of the Other. Deep stuff. It matters in music, in love (inevitably), but also in communication. So much of everyday understanding is non-verbal, implicit, conveyed and taken in almost subliminally through a mixture of convention (or musical form) and familiarity (the patterns of understanding unique to any given pair of people in a face-to-face encounter). Somehow we manage to negotiate this quite successfully. The strength of the internet is its ability to bring us together at a distance, but this too reveals its limits. A picture of a bird is not a bird. A video link is not a face-to-face. This is not a pipe.

    1. Fergus, I agree with all you say!

  2. I so much agree with all of this, Jacob! In a way I think it’s even more true of amateurs, since we’re working around our lesser abilities and slower pace of learning. And I don’t think recordings will work as well for us since they expose our lower standards!

    One question: why didn’t Clare record the vocal first, so that you could fit your accompaniment around her vocal?

    1. Hi Beck! Two reasons, I think: 1. the lute starts most of the phrases and the voice enters later. I think the person who comes in first at the beginning needs to record their part first, unless there’s a click track, which I refuse to use. 2. I think Clare would say (but she will correct me if I’m wrong) that it’s easier to do intonation if singing with something.
      Stay well!

  3. Dear Jacob, I so agree with you about the joy and love in sharing music. As a pianist I was never content with being a soloist. My greatest pleasure was accompanying singer friends, my clarinetist cousin and playing duets. My father was a very good amateur violinist and we would play Mozart sonatas together when I was very young. But it is in singing where I have found the greatest musical pleasure and satisfaction. The Cambridge Renaissance weeks with Philip (where we met!) were such a joy and I have continued to go on singing courses, viol weeks and recently the Beauchamp week. I hope to hear you again when attending a Martin Randall event. My warm wishes to you and your family. Doris Willis

    1. Thank you, Doris. Lovely to hear from you. Stay well, and see you somewhere sometime when normal service resumes.

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